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Monthly Archives: February 2010

Travels with Pavel: 24 February 2005

The traffic on the roads of Phnom Penh at 7 in the morning was extraordinary and already at that hour there were also students to be seen on the campus of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. The airport is small, well-maintained and almost bereft of passengers – except of course the Indians – of whom I counted at least four more besides me – who have the “privilege” of flying out and to rub salt into the wounds, there is a US$25 departure tax.

The best was however, yet to come. Two turns of the corner away, after I’d paid the outrageous departure tax, I stood in front of the immigration counter. There sat a lady officer in front of me and next to her another male officer. Quite calmly, very matter-of-factly the lady asked for a “souvenir, “Sir, US$5”! If it had not come just a few seconds, after parting with US$25 of hard-earned money, I might have actually considered handing over the US$5 – I am that kind of a numbskull at times. However, she caught me at just the wrong time, still smarting from the first payment. I didn’t give a damn anymore if they detained me but I had just enough wits about to me not to blow my top. Instead, I managed my most winningest smile and said, “Oh no, thanks, I’ve got plenty of souvenirs. I’ve spent over 20 days in Cambodia.” After that, it was merely the motions that had to be gone through.

The flight actually took off five minutes before time. And cruising at low altitude, I got an idea for the first time of anything approaching extensive forests and hills in Cambodia and they were quite beautiful. An hour later, the descent into Bangkok was through dirty brown clouds of pollution.

At the Bangkok airport, I saw the biggest collection of Chinese citizens I ever saw in any one place – and all Muslim Hui at that. The entire planeload of them was there in the transit area, mostly aged people with a few middle-aged and younger ones, sleeping, resting, chatting, making tea. Probably going to or coming from Mecca. A most unexpected sight coming in from Cambodia.

KLM 0877 was delayed – snowstorms in Europe apparently and I had been sweating in the heat just over an hour ago – but Pavel, still limping from the wound I’d given him falling from the moto, and I finally met up in the departure lounge a couple of hours. We hugged like long-lost brothers. We played Praší for a while and then watched a small army of Thai men and women march up and down our plane cleaning and unloading and loading food trays.

Once on board, we decided to celebrate Pavel’s birthday. To the first airhostess who came around, Pavel placed his order – “Can I have one gin and tonic and one vodka with orange juice, please?” The matronly airhostess fixed a beady eye on the potential drunkard in front of her and said simply, “No.” Pavel and I were a bit taken aback and at a loss for words. The airhostess finally noticed me and the confusion on our faces and putting two and two together said, “Oh, it is for the two of you?”

To make up for her mistake, I think she was rather liberal with the vodka in the vodka and orange juice. Or perhaps, she mixed it in proportions she herself consumed. Whatever, it was a proportion that was a bit too much for me and I was soon high in more ways than one.

Back to cold Taipei. From 6:15 in the morning today when I woke up, to 6:30 in the evening when we landed in Taipei, it’s all been smooth sailing I should say, flying – Phnom Penh to Bangkok to Taipei – 3 airports, 3 countries, 1 day.

Epilogue

The ink in my pen has still not run dry but my journey draws to a close. 28 days of living out of a rucksack – backpacking they call it. For me, they were days in a country that was both strange and familiar, days that both brought back memories of childhood and plunged me headlong into new experiences.

To be reminded, to remember – are memories merely ties that bind us to the past, mere will o’the wisps that are of no profit or are they the vital lifelines that enable us to rise again, renew ourselves and give context to our everyday lives? Who knows? All I know is this – it helps to have your friends along for the ride.

Travels with Pavel: 23 February 2005

I haven’t spent 20 days at a stretch at home in a long time – I have done that in Cambodia. My last full day in Cambodia was spent finishing King Arthur’s Legend and reading a very interesting series of essays on taxation by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers, a book I’d picked up from a second-hand bookshop in Sihanoukville. Pretty heavy stuff for a tourist to be carrying around.

Lunch was a long-drawn out affair as I quizzed Sreenivas-ji on a number of matters and fell to talking later with a Kashmiri who called himself Jim and whose home is on the Pakistani side  of Kashmir. He was last in Kashmir in 1998 and presently holds a British passport. Seven years is a long time away from home, especially when home is Kashmir. Jim is in the IT field and works in Holland while his family lives in Britain. Circumstances might differ but he’s another of the dispossessed who haven’t the freedom to return home when they like. Jim still talks about “probably be[ing] arrested” even if he ventured into the Indian side of Kashmir with a UK passport.

Among other conversations I had over lunch was one about the differences between butter, cheese, paneer and the like and how each was produced. The Swedish guy at the table didn’t seem to know it nor the Irishman who’s been teaching English in Busan in South Korea for the last two years. And the EU spends the largest amount of its subsidies supporting the Common Agricultural Policy. And driving a lot of farmers in Africa out of business in the process – surely the average European ought to know more. Both Swede and Irishman were agreed, however, that the Greeks probably knew best about the secrets of making cheese. And so we come back to the “southern peoples” again.

Travels with Pavel: 19-22 February 2005

Three days at Sihanoukville on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand with waters as warm as “dog’s urine” to quote Pavel. All I did was sleep late and venture to the beach only after 5:30 in the evening when the sun had lost much of its heat – I didn’t think that I particularly needed the tan.

The Road to Damascus is exactly 50 years old in its 1955 edition and a beautiful book of discovery, of clarity, and one to which I know I shall return given my own addled understanding of religion, and battles with faith and unbelief. I am worth so much more than the birds of the sky, as the saying goes but altogether too much like a crab washed ashore by the sea onto some slippery rock clinging on precariously until the next wave comes and pulls it back into the foaming chaos.

It’s our last day together in Cambodia – Pavel is taking the bus from Sihanoukville to the Thai border while I am going back to the capital to take the flight back. What is worse, its Pavel’s birthday tomorrow – of all the days, it had to be his birthday, I’ve been silently cursing the travel restrictions on Indians for several days now.

Anyway, there’s no keeping a Czech beer-lover down, so we decided to celebrate by having Happy Pizza, served by a cheerful 12-year old named Marra, whose mother worked in Phnom Penh, while he helped Johnny.

Now Happy Pizza is a local specialty we’ve been saving for the last. This time though we’re not as poor as we were with the spiders. Pavel and I had a pizza each laced with marijuana to go with our beers and the fantastic sunset in front of us. 5 minutes, 15 minutes, half an hour – it didn’t seem like the marijuana was having much of an effect on either of us and we decided to sit down to a screening of Van Helsig that had just begun at one of the beachside places. It was being screened on a white sheet stretched between two poles stuck in the sand. The patrons of the shack sat in front of the screen but pretty soon there was a bigger audience of shameless tourists and locals sitting behind the screen. Of course, they were only followed the lead set by a certain Indo-Czech duo.

The movie is a combination of all the various monster legends of European literature – the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frankenstein, Werewolf and Dracula – and together with some crazy mix of this stuff as shown on screen plus the ‘left-handed’ crossing of himself by Van Helsig, this is absolutely a strange movie to watch when you’ve just had Happy Pizza – though I daresay, people might have felt that way about the movie even otherwise. In any case, being stoned sort of increased the charms of the movie, several notches

If watching Van Helsig, wasn’t quite the ideal way to tell how high we were, we realized soon enough as we made our way back after the movie. Splashing through the waves, I found that I could not help smiling all the time at something or the other and once I had laughed, my face remained fixed in at full stretch for the longest time. Even when Pavel was heading out quite a fair distance into the sea, all I could do was laugh myself silly while somewhere in the back of my head, I was screaming at the top of my lungs, “come back, you clown, or you’ll drown and I can’t swim!!”

We made it back to our guesthouse and decided to pay our US$12 for the three nights, since we were leaving the next day. According to Pavel, I did the paying normally enough. According to me, I was watching myself outside of my own body, slapping down the dollars on the counter with a scowl and scaring the hell out of the chaps at the reception at the same time.

In the morning when I saw Pavel off at about 7, I was still reeling. It took a long shower, and a walk through Sihanoukville with my rucksack and lunch to bring me back to some semblance of level-headedness. Back in Phnom Penh, I did not mind the long walk through Preah Monivong Boulevard back to our last guesthouse at Boeng Kak, either. And for once, I didn’t lose my way.

Travels with Pavel: 18 February 2005

“It’s raining” that’s what Prší means and Pavel did not know why this Czech card game he was teaching me was called so. I didn’t care much since after the first few games, which I lost, I began winning quite a few. That was enough to make Pavel want to play pool with me later so that he could beat me and have his revenge. Strange game it might be with 32 cards but I think I like it, especially since it is one of the few games, I seem to have as good a chance as the opposite player of winning. At chess or pool, not even the law of averages can conspire to give me a win. I’m thumped almost every time.

It was to escape the oppressive heat of our lodgings that we took off for Same Same But Different for its Happy Hour and relaxed with some music and drink. I also decided to give Pavel an advance birthday treat with – what else, a bottle of beer.

Earlier, I’d found 200Baht in the side pocket of my rucksack. Where that came from I don’t know. I didn’t remember putting it there and how many days it travelled there in its dark corner, with every possibility of getting lost and never being missed, I don’t know, either. The atheist just smiles, while the believer goes “Hallelujah!”

Travels with Pavel: 16-17 February 2005

We had set out yesterday morning from Phnom Penh by a primitive train on the Battambang line to Romeas. We were hoping to climb Phnom Aural in the Elephant Range of the Cardamom Mountains, the highest point in Cambodia. That we did not succeed did not surprise me – Pavel was hoping to do it on a wing minus the prayer, atheist that he is. Me, I just went along for fun and because it was an area of Cambodia that we hadn’t explored yet. Plus Cardamom Mountains – a very spicy Mallu connection, there. We had more enthusiasm than planning on our side. But that was only half the story of our trip. It was all the incidentals that made the trip memorable.

The Elephant Range of the Cardamom Mountains

We hired a moto from the railway station to a hamlet a few kilometers and a couple of turns from the school of Wat Mong Kul Khan, hoping that this would be the nearest point of access to the peak. In the event, it turned out that it was the nearest to some waterfalls. Not again. We’ve had plenty of luck with waterfalls, this trip. The two villagers who took us there – rucksacks and all and not a meal in some 24 hours – explained to us only at the waterfalls that the peak was two days away. So we hung around there for a while before returning to the hamlet.

There, at the home of the older of the two villagers, we asked if we could stay for the night and eat too somewhere around. Both were cheerfully agreed to and the evening was whiled away – as both children and elders pored over the beautiful photographs of the Insight Guide on Laos and Cambodia. We were treated to a great dinner of chicken, fish curry and rice – so much like back home and then went for a wash at the village pump. With Pavel’s “lustrous” body ‘shining’ in the dark, we took a bath with all eyes on us.

Our hosts

We slept on a cot in the open under a mango tree in the courtyard of the older villager’s house with mango-somethings falling on us all through the night. A big, fat pig not happy at having his style cramped by the intruders ran around us all night long, often snorting in disgust, a few feet from my head. Travel-hardened veterans, we ignored the possibility that the pig was big enough to tip us over cot and all, if he put a mind to charging us. Instead, we let a fantastic cool wind lull us to sleep as we watched the moon through the tree leaves.

Waking up at 6, we were soon off on foot – one of Pavel’s crazy ideas and one which I would regret throughout the six-odd hours it took us to get to Romeas. The villager who had been paid a princely sum insisted on taking us on his moto to Romeas but we politely refused. And thus began our odyssey.

We drew stares, smiles, laughter and barking dogs the length of our walk. It is a wonder nobody fell off his or her moto or bicycle keeping their eyes on us instead of on the road – that happens only in the movies, I guess. We certainly were a sight trudging with heavy rucksacks and heavy trekking boots, the unpaved road to Romeas. Quite a few people tried to make conversation on the way, especially the old women. We replied with smiles or the name of our destination, which were met with still more smiles and the occasional guffaw. It was hot and tiring and I cursed freely. On the way, a couple of Buddhist monks accosted us and bid us rest a while so that they could have their lunches and join us for the rest of the trip – “only a kilometer away.” We did have a good rest but insisted on completing the walk, while the young monks were ferried to their monastery by moto. Well, of course, the kilometer turned into three more or so, before we finally walked into the railway station at about 1 in the afternoon.

Soon we were entertained by the stationmaster and his friends/relatives to a smattering of English and some toddy, the first we’d had since Angkor Wat and Siem Reap – that feels like ages ago, already. The train that arrived at about 4:15 didn’t leave until close to 5. As soon as it moved out of the station, both of us clambered onto the roof, where we made some small-talk with the ticket examiner – who seemed to be collecting money from the illegals on the roof rather than dispensing any tickets.

And so in Cambodia, what I never did in India – travel rooftop class on a train. Pavel doesn’t like sunsets. Me? I love them. More than sunrises, which I find very difficult to get up for anyway. I think I fell in love with sunsets when I was in Room 317 at my hostel, Sutlej in JNU. Always had fantastic sunsets right through the year and especially in winter. The clouds, meanwhile told a story by themselves – one changed from a koala’s head to that of a lamb to finally a stag with its antlers, while the Starship Enterprise hung around nearby hoping to attain warp speed. And when I lay on my back, there up above already was a half-moon.

As the train went its rolling, shaking way, people jumped back and forth between the few – four or five – carriages and planks of sawed wood were released from the sides of the train every now and then, with lots of yelling and shouting. On the ground itself, people appeared out of the bushes running wildly, frantic in their hurry to carry their planks away. What their hurry was, we never figured out.

It soon turned dark and at a major stop – major, because we waited some 45 minutes there and there was more yelling, screaming, quarelling and chaos there – the two of us had 100Riel popsicles of red beans on the roof of the train. The inside of the train was pitch dark too, except for a few private lights and it was past 9 before we trundled into Phnom Penh, to take a third different guesthouse in as many trips. No TV and no pool table here for a US$3 a night room.

One of the things I reflected on while watching the sunset and over conversation with Pavel was how the atheists I knew seemed always more at peace with themselves and the world than the believers. The believers, like me were always full of doubts. Well, Thomas is my middle name, after all.

Travels with Pavel: 15 February 2005

I wonder how they let me into Cambodia by land. The Thai embassy in Phnom Penh – actually the guard at the counter who wouldn’t even let me in to the main building – said that unless I was resident in Cambodia, I could not get a tourist visa to return to Thailand overland. As an Indian, I could only get a visa on arrival at the airport. I had to fly back to Thailand, as the official at the Indian embassy had told me. Pavel, of course, could walk on his hands or pole vault across for all the Thais cared. So that’s another lot of US dollars that I would have to spend to keep the Indian flag flying high in Taipei instead of in prison in Phnom Penh.

Gandhi and Me in Phnom Penh

Pavel came up with the idea of arriving exactly on the 24th at Bangkok so that I wouldn’t have to pay visa fees and proceed directly to the transit area and fly to Taipei. With my talent for attracting trouble, I’m likely to end getting lost again and with a 2-hour window to boarding my flight to Taipei, I knew I was likely to do everything within my power to cut things as fine as possible. Just the way it’s always been with me.

We are also extremely short of money. If the present situation does not call for a lot of prayers from the believer in the team, I don’t know what does. Are things as bad as they look? Or is it all just perfect?

Watching the Tom Hanks starrer, The Terminal about things that can go wrong with visas and at airports – Pavel had very considerately asked the guesthouse manager to screen it for my exclusive benefit – it was hard to miss the fact that in the end, it was only the Indian (Gupta, in this case) that got socked.

Travels with Pavel: 13-14 February 2005

At the village of Kampi on the way to Kratie, the Mekong came into view with the setting sun reflected in its slow waters – a sight for tired minds and bodies beyond the point of feeling any discomfort. We were on the return leg from Banlung  and the hot, dusty, bone-jarring ride cooped up this time in the inside of a Toyota Land Cruiser instead of bouncing around on the tailgate of a pick-up was infinitely more dreary than any of our trips so far. Unlike the trip into Banlung in the cool evening air, we were left more dead than alive at the end of it. There was a boy barely into his teens, I think, and Man Friday to the driver, who was perched on the top with our luggage and a standing moto. How he survived the ride is a mystery to me. Pavel, meanwhile was a sight to see, caked in dust at the back – and so I guess, was I.

The boat ride we wanted from Kratie to Phnom Penh didn’t exist. It went only up to Kampong Cham and cost US$5 to US$8 per person, depending on who you spoke with and we were seriously short of money. So we settled for a 10,000Riel big-bed room at Star 2 Guest House – the half a dollar extra was for the TV that came with the room. Pavel helpfully pulled out the plug in a bid to convince the mercenary proprietress to keep the rent to US$2. No such luck! So I went to sleep watching Zee Music.

Earlier just when we thought we were likely to starve for the night, we found food, meat and rice – a little of both – for 700Riel each. Tickets to Phnom Penh by bus – the last two seats for US$5 each – finished off the last of our American currency. Talk about a well-planned trip – I’ve become too used to riding my luck.

The morning of Valentine’s Day was not much fun at the back of the 7:15 bus for Phnom Penh. It was cramped even for me and I can only imagine Pavel’ discomfort. The high point of our trip was that with 500Riel (we were now into three figures in Cambodian currency), Pavel and me shared a fried spider – finally! Once we plucked up the courage to do it, we were left regretting we didn’t have enough money to have a spider each to ourself. The spider was quite tasty really. With another 500Riel we bought three appams with sugar, coconut rinds, etc, etc, whatever you call it back in Kerala, tasted just like home. This country really is a lot like home, right down to the music videos.

2330hours

I am really hopeless as far as my sense of direction goes. That or I simply don’t pay attention to where I’m going. As soon as I have 20 metres clear in front of me, I start dreaming, I miss turns, forget all about time. And I was supposed to meet Pavel in a nearby Internet cafe, but I ended up way, way off from my destination. I finally hired a cycle rickshaw – City of Ghosts style – me in front, cyclist at the back. The few times I’ve had the experience with the cycle-rickshaw wallahs in Delhi, I’ve never even attempted to bargain with them. I feel terribly guilty of being transported around literally by the sweat and toil of another human being – I usually walk if I can help it. This time thought, given our own straitened circumstances, I negotiated the price down to 300Riel. Wasn’t really necessary. I ended up paying the US$1 the guy asked for, the guy was sweating in the heat and he asked with a smile close to desperation.  Not much chance of me leaving any kids of mine a decent inheritance, I guess.

Saw Team America at our guesthouse – talk about taking the freedom of expression, too far! But funny movie all the same.

Travels with Pavel: 12 February 2005

It started out as a beautiful blue-sky day with van Gogh clouds, but here we were at a small hamlet on the way back from Voen Sai. We had taken a very bad fall with a gear change I’d executed with less than perfect timing on the accursed mud track that passed for a road. Both of us had bruised left legs and missing flesh to show and the bike wouldn’t start again either. A passing moto driver with another tourist behind him – that’s what the smart tourists do, get the locals to do the driving – stopped and helped start our moto. I’d like to say he got it started with an almighty kick to the engine, but that only happens in the movies.

We only went another 15 minutes before the moto stopped again this time because we ran out of asang or gas! Talk about planning. So after explaining our problem to a few passing moto drivers in the hope of being helped again, two boys on a moto finally volunteered to get us a litre of fuel from the nearest place selling it. And off they rode with the 3,000Riel. They did not allow either of us to accompany them nor did they take the 5,000Riel that I offered them just in case, just 3,000Riel exactly needed to pay for one litre.

And so we waited, washed our wounds and waited until Pavel had the sense to flag down a passing French couple who generously let us have half a bottle of their fuel which a local helped us transfer from one moto to the other. And we were off together till we finally found a place to refill. No sign of the boys yet but as soon as we had refilled and were barely on our way, who should we see tearing down towards us, but the two rascals.

I was still ready to believe that they had been well-intentioned even as they stopped the bike after having zipped past us. Pavel had only to motor back to them for them to promptly hand back the money we’d given them. Pavel thought that the expression on their faces said, “Please don’t beat us!”

Anyway, we were once again very fortunate, thank God – atheist or no atheist. I was beginning to curse my luck but except for some lost skin, I think we came out of the situation pretty well and I’ve seen worse. Pavel, meanwhile, is cooking up a real cock-and-bull story to explain or injuries back in Taiwan by stretching the facts of the day a little.

Primary among them was our running into a young chap holding a machete waiting on the road outside the chunchiet cemeteries – the burial forest of the Tompoun tribe. We were on our way out of the forests, me at the front, when I saw him. His expression was… well, he wasn’t smiling, let us say. So I tucked the moto key into my pocket and freed my hands for action if necessary with a funny feeling going round and round in my stomach. I walked right up to him – not that I knew any tricks to make machetes and other sharp objects disappear or anything – but the man stood right in the middle of the path exiting the chunchiet. So well, I um, I gave him my best smile and my impression of what I thought was a Khmer “hello!” – “s’sday!” And well, he smiled back, machete and all, only to switch back to no-smile mode when Pavel emerged out of the thickets. Now that I think of it, Pavel might have saved my life again for the umpteenth time on this trip. What’re the odds of a guy with a machete being charmed by my smile? We got out of there in a real hurry.

Earlier, we had made our way to Voen Sai on the banks of the Tonle San river, through marginally better roads than yesterday’s – yes, despite the fall later – crossed the river by ferry walked up and down a bit, sat by the river at somebody’s private landing. And while Pavel went for his obligatory swim, I went walking westwards to look for the Chinese villages with the “fine houses.” I saw them, wasn’t much impressed and went back across the river again to begin the real excitement of the day.

Back in our lodgings, clean once again, we had a long chat with Mr. Hak who has 14 acres of land in town on which he wants to build a joint venture hotel with foreign investment, preferably from Pavel and me. I gently steered the conversation to other matters as we discussed the bright prospects for Ratnakiri as border posts opened north to Laos and east to Vietnam in the near future; the numerous NGOs investing a lot of money in the areas – up to US$100,000, some of them; the several Indian traders – about 10 of them, Laurent said he’d seen two – who sold stuff like mosquito nets, cloth and medicines, I think, round the year. Mr. Hak also spoke some about the travails of the Sam Rainsy Party – other main parties are the Cambodian People’s Party led by Hun Sen and the Funcinpec Party – due to which there was American and UN pressure brought to bear on the Hun Sen government. Mr. Hak and his wife had previously worked for NGOs in the area which was what had given them the opportunities to travel. He now ran a driving school and sundry other enterprises. Was also once secretary to the former governor of the province. Big fish, this guy.

Travels with Pavel: 11 February 2005

There’s two sides to me (and there are schizophrenics, yes). One is the cautious fellow, who tries to make the right decision under the circumstances, takes the better-safe-than-sorry approach to life. This ‘me,’ I’m afraid has missed a lot of fun in life as a result. The other side of me is the one that doesn’t want to miss out on anything, always burdened with the feeling that he’s already missed out too much in life, and so thinks, “let’s go for it!” This ‘me,’ I’m afraid has a lot of bruises to show for it. Not that I could’ve stopped Pavel today short of having a full-blown fight. The issue was waterfalls.

The white man’s approach to the elements (and I do not base this observation only on my experiences with Pavel or Sandro, my regular climbing partner in Taiwan) is often based on confronting them, based on immense self-belief and on as much a must-do spirit as the can-do. The Asian by contrast is ready to bow to superior forces. Or maybe the Asian mind just doesn’t see the point of climbing of a mountain, even if it is the highest mountain in the world. The more important mountains for the Asian are the holy ones from Emei Shan in Sichuan to Mt. Kailash in Tibet and of course mythical ones, nobody actually has to climb, like Mount Meru. Or it is the beautiful ones like Mt. Fuji in Japan.

Now me, well, I am caught somewhere in the middle – the consequences of my upbringing I guess, in a world caught between the middle class straight-and-narrow cut-the-risks approach and my Indian schools on the one side and American TV, Western literature and a fantastic 20-volume encyclopedia at home on the other.

So then, all it takes for me is a little encouragement. And Pavel, well, he is the Great Encourager – like Mao was the Great Helmsman. There ought to be constellations in the sky like that.

Three stolen cashew-nut fruits. That was the sum of our nutrition till about 8 in the evening when we finally got back from the last of our waterfalls for the day. I was driving on the right side of the road for the first time in my life and I chose the worst tracks in the world to do it. With the chap riding pillion about twice my size and on a scooter/moto that could barely carry me, it didn’t get better. One brake-too-late-and-crash! into the remains of tree stump in the middle of the bloody track later, I was nursing a bruise swelling beautifully over my ribs from Pavel crushing me against the handle.

The first two waterfalls weren’t the problem. Standing over the first one at Choang and then walking under the falls, was fun. Even if what Pavel called a “massage,” was quite painful at times.

It was the hunt for a seven-tiered beauty advertised in the Lonely Planet that had me in ‘cautious’ mode and asking silly questions like “who would put a waterfall here?!” The dirt track was murderous. Pavel, quite unwilling to listen to reason (as I defined it) was always immediately solicitous of my health after spilling me – even though a few seconds was as long as the solicitousness lasted. One time, the damn scooter reared up right on backwards with me landing beautifully flat on my back. I picked myself up off the track a few seconds later, laughing anyway, but Pavel was looking rather pale, quite like “This time I’ve done it, I must’ve killed him. No?!”

The damn waterfall finally came into our sights at 5pm some two-and-a-half hours after we started from the last one – rubber plantations, cashew-nut plantations, bare-breasted tribal women, rickety wooden-plank bridges and a French-speaking old man in a village a few minutes from the waterfall, all on our way. The French speaker quite clearly put up two fingers to indicate the distance in kilometers but said something that sounded closer to “trois” than “deux” and told us that we should be there in “quinze minutes.” So I, who had 12 minutes ago given Pavel another 10 minutes to look for his waterfall, was prodding him to “hurry up” for another however many minutes more. The waterfall in the end, wasn’t anything to write home about.

Several spills later and in complete darkness (call the light from the lamp of a less-than-100-cc moto, illumination?) for most of the way, we got back into town. Me the god-fearing, god-believer with the atheist. Well, the good thing about this is that the believer tends to pray double. And prayer always helps, doesn’t it?

We’d found ourselves new lodgings. This time we have a room – rat-infested, lizard-infested, dirty pillows and all – together with the aforementioned moto at a daily rate of US$5, which is good in our currently straitened circumstances. However, for dinner at the same place we went to yesterday, we’re charged double for what was pretty much the same thing – or maybe just a little different. Anyway, Mr Hak Boonthan, our new host, will hopefully refurbish his dwellings if he wants to make a proper guesthouse out of it. He will probably name it “Lakeview Guest House,” after our suggestion. We seem to be the first paying guests here – his family occupies the other rooms. Mr. Hak has got photos of his travels in Nepal and of his wife’s in India on the outside wall. I could identify Bombay at least. Talk about a small world.

Travels with Pavel: 10 February 2005

Lazy day. Woke up to loud Khmer pop or rock or whatever it was from the next room. Lunch was in a quiet restaurant overlooking a valley of cashew-nut plantations. Cashew fruit is quite juicy if without any particular taste, if you must know.

Pavel and I decided to leg it to a nearby lake, the area’s main tourist spot. We walked along unpaved roads – this place won’t see tarred roads for a few years yet, I think – and we were cloaked in the red dust every passing vehicle left in its wake, dispensing “Hello!”s on the way.

The entry fee to the lake had quadrupled from that mentioned in the Lonely Planet to US$1 for foreigners. Locals had to pay only 300Riels. Not such a bad deal compared to the Taj Mahal, which simply rips foreigners off when compared to the prices Indians pay.

Like any regular tourist spot now, the children ran the show – taking running jumps into the lake and making as much noise as possible. So we found ourselves a quiet place almost bang opposite the entry point and all the noise. The Boeng Yeak Lam Lake is actually formed over a volcano, several hundred thousand years old and the blue of its waters are the deepest I’ve seen anywhere. They seem to have a character to them, that is sorely missing in the pale blue and sunny sky above.

Yeak Lom Crater Lake

I’ve the dubious distinction of having to be saved twice from drowning – a couple of thousand miles to the west, as the crow flies – in the Bay of Bengal. But the lake seemed harmless, no sudden undercurrent to pull a nasty surprise and where we stood was a line of bamboo poles tied together headed some distance out into the lake. I decided to be brave (with Pavel the lifeguard around) and thrashed my way to the end of the bamboo line in terribly inelegant breaststrokes. Ok, but I felt like a winner anyway. So there we were, Pavel and me, hanging onto bamboo in a volcanic crater lake in the middle of Indochina and talking about more things and places Czech. Totally cool.

We walked back again in the red dust but this time with a thin silver moon hanging in a sky that had built up some character through the day – it was a lovely shade of pink-magenta. Back in our rooms, I watched a violent cartoon called Samurai Jack and then for the first time on TV, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I’d only read that always in comic strip form as a kid.